Bid for More Cable Regulation Divides FCC FCC Chairman Kevin Martin tried to push for more regulation of cable this week, and ended up opening a split in the commission. On one side is the moral conservative push for "a la carte" cable, free from offensive programming. On the other side, a pro-business objection to more regulation.
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Bid for More Cable Regulation Divides FCC

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Bid for More Cable Regulation Divides FCC

Bid for More Cable Regulation Divides FCC

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Politics can create strange bedfellows, the saying goes, but it can also cause unusual rifts. And here is one. This week, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission pushed for more control over cable television.

And as David Folkenflik reports, some philosophical divisions among Republicans on the commission erupted into the open.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Tim Winter, the president of the Parents Television Council, defines one of his key foes this way.

Mr. TIM WINTER (President, Parents Television Council): A cable industry that is acting like a cartel, where you have, basically, all of the choice of a North Korean election.

FOLKENFLIK: Winter's group lobbies against explicit violence, sexuality and profanity in entertainment. And when it comes to cable television, Winter has it championed in current FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, who, he says, understands the commission's importance.

Mr. WINTER: The FCC outside of the Pentagon, I think, has the most important role in our nation. I mean, this is the way we communicate - the public airwaves, electronic communication cable satellite, telephone. This is the essence of our democracy.

FOLKENFLIK: The chief spokesman for the cable TV industry is Kyle McSlarrow, and he, understandably, has a different view.

Mr. KYLE McSLARROW (Chief Spokesman, National Cable & Television Association): At this point, we have completely gone off the rails in any sense of a guiding philosophy. I mean, this is a Republican administration and a Republican majority on a commission. We have an incredibly, intensely competitive marketplace.

FOLKENFLIK: McSlarrow was a former Energy Department official under President Bush before becoming CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. He says Martin is driven by, well, by…

Mr. McSLARROW: …his well-documented personal vendetta against the cable industry.

FOLKENFLIK: You heard him. The man said vendetta. McSlarrow says Martin is aiding phone companies at the expense of cable companies. But he also says Martin is driven by his zeal to extend the FCC's fight against broadcast obscenity to the cable industry.

Mr. McSLARROW: More deregulation and more respect for free markets is in order. And instead, what we are getting are proposals to increase regulatory burdens and to constrain our industry.

FOLKENFLIK: And there's the irony. FCC Chairman Martin is a Bush appointee and a former White House aide on economics, so you might think he'd be pro-business. In fact, Martin says the cable industry has grown so much, the FCC should have the power to regulate it more as it does broadcast television. Some of his seemingly natural conservative allies are objecting. Here's Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell during a contentious FCC meeting earlier this week.

Mr. ROBERT McDOWELL (Commissioner, Federal Communications Commission): The average consumer has a choice of at least three video providers with over builders and phone companies increasing that many of options for millions more consumers. When competition flourishes, the need for regulation diminishes.

FOLKENFLIK: But Chairman Martin wants cable companies to offer channels a la carte, that is not in packages but individually so customers can decide precisely which stations they want. He declined to comment for this story, but he said consumers shouldn't have to pay extra for unwanted channels and shouldn't be forced to allow explicit content into their homes.

Some liberal consumer groups have supported Martin's drive, and there's this strange bedfellows. A lot of the argument comes over whether enough people subscribe to cable to trigger a law giving the FCC sweeping new powers. Martin says enough people do, and that triggered a brawl behind the scenes.

Mr. BLAIR LEVIN (Telecommunications Analyst, Stifel Nicolaus): Chairman Martin does not control the commission in a way that other chairmen have.

FOLKENFLIK: Blair Levin is a former chief of staff to Reed Hunt, an FCC chairman under President Bill Clinton. Levin is now an analyst for institutional investors and has no holdings in the individual media companies.

Mr. LEVIN: Every chairman of the FCC comes to realize there is a conflict between family values and market values. And that in terms of government, that conflict is seen most clearly at the FCC.

FOLKENFLIK: Levin thinks the effort to extend the agency's reach on cable would lose in the courts and that Martin's push for a la carte is likely doomed. That said, Levin points out that Chairman Martin has succeeded on a lot of the rest of his agenda at the FCC and is unlikely to let up on cable TV anytime soon.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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